We return from break at a dangerous time for the United States and for the world. Iran’s internal politics are murky and unstable, and our intelligence services are reduced to guesswork as the Iranian nuclear program rolls forward. Candidates in election mode bluster and beat war drums, tripping over themselves to establish their national security bona fides. But if the moment for military action comes, will we support President Obama in doing what is necessary?
College campuses have long been bastions of anti-war activism, and college students are often considered the most viscerally pacifist voices in the country. At the height of the Vietnam War, Yale’s own chaplain, Reverend William Sloane Coffin, was one of the nation’s leading anti-war activists. Coffin advocated declaring Battell Chapel a sanctuary for conscientious objectors and was even convicted of conspiracy to abet draft resistance. In the early 1970s, student anti-war protests occupied campus quadrangles, convulsing the University and drawing the National Guard.
But sophisticated opposition to war has always been tempered by recognition of war’s occasional necessity. The same Coffin who so bitterly opposed the Vietnam War fought enthusiastically in World War II. Not all wars are unjust or ill-conceived, and we too should stand ready to support decision to use American military might in the service of international peace and in defense of innocent life.
Most of us understand this intuitively. Widespread student support for ROTC’s return to Yale belies the myth of automatic college pacifism. Similarly, the somewhat tasteless celebration that swept campus on the evening when Osama bin Laden was killed represents an endorsement of properly used American military power.
Student opinion on American interventionism is far more sophisticated than the common caricature suggests. Our moral compass is not that different from the rest of America’s. We prefer to avoid war, but we understand its occasional necessity. We will oppose costly and arbitrary uses of force, but limited action to preserve peace and protect innocents seems sensible.
With Iran, the stakes could not be higher. The world finds itself confronted by a fanatical and oppressive regime that defiantly moves ever closer to developing nuclear weapons. Despite decades of sabotage and increasingly biting sanctions from Western governments, the Iranian regime defies inspectors, enriches uranium far beyond the level required for civilian purposes and builds secret enrichment plants beneath fortified bunkers.
Of course, a nuclear-capable Iran would be a global catastrophe. As Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others desperately seek to keep pace, the inevitable arms race would turn the world’s most volatile region into a nuclear tinderbox. The possibility of nuclear terror — by Hezbollah, Hamas or other Iranian-sponsored terror groups — would increase dramatically. After all, deterrence is no defense against shadow groups. When a nuclear bomb goes off in a major city center — without indication of whether its origin was in Pakistan, Iran or North Korea — against whom do we retaliate?
Deterrence might not even work against the Iranian military. The Soviet Union’s leadership was cold, rational and self-interested; the Iranian regime is defined by a fanatical devotion to a radical brand of Islam. Leading clerics and politicians have publicly endorsed the practical application of apocalyptic political theology, and the unpredictability of Iranian politics raises the very real possibility that these men could soon gain control over Iran’s military.
No doubt some hear echoes of arguments in the lead up to the Iraq War. But we are a different country than that which blundered into unwinnable wars post-9/11, and the evidence of Iran’s nuclear weapons program far surpasses anything we had in Iraq. Too often we forget that the paralyzing fear of repeating previous mistakes can be just as damaging as failure to learn the lessons of history.
No one wants war; President Obama has pushed for sanctions and publicly rebuked others for their bellicosity. The Israelis have used every available tactic, assassinating scientists and deploying computer viruses, in a desperate attempt to forestall war. But the overwhelming consensus of the American political leadership — both Democrats and Republicans — is that containment of a nuclear Iran is simply not an acceptable option. This month, Obama committed American power — including our military might — to preventing an Iranian bomb.
None of us has the information necessary to determine the proper moment when time runs out and sanctions and sabotage must yield to military action. But given the Iranian regime’s fanatical obstinacy, it seems increasingly probable that we will reach such a point. We should pray that the regime sees reason, but we must prepare for the worst. And if our president’s hand is forced, we must once again defy the simplistic caricature of the Ivy League pacifist.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.